Siestas and fiestas.
As a result of my feet flittering through the route’s previous major municipalities – in Pamplona, Burgos and Logroño – I hadn’t yet absorbed big-city culture on the Camino Francés. After crossing almost 350 kilometres of sparse Spanish Meseta since leaving Burgos on Day 13, I restlessly awaited another heaving metropolis on Day 19. The following 40 hours in León would refuel the journey with invigorating naps, delicious delicacies and one weekend-long party.
Camino de Santiago Diary – Day 19
Our walking group departed Day 18’s Mansilla de las Mulas Albergue at the crack of dawn, eager to spend as much time as possible revelling in León’s ‘fiestas de San Juan y San Pedro’ festival. We’d also decided to pair the city’s celebrations with a well-earnt rest on Day 20, but first, we had to trek beyond the agricultural plateau we’d called home for the last week.
Walking into the industrialised outskirts of León, smeared with noisy highways and tasteless advertising boards, I noticed an atmospheric shift from the Meseta’s quaint villages. The urbanised alleyways provided little in terms of inspiration, and, remarkably, I found myself longing to be back amongst the wheat fields that had blunted my enthusiasm over the past few days.
While many of the Camino’s rural regions aren’t flushed with wealth, they maintain a genuine, undiluted honesty that is often lost within large metropolitan sprawls. Almost to a fault, outlying communities are impeccably presented with swept sidewalks and residential balconies flowing with seasonal blooms. The over-developed slog into León had lost this charm.
León is the fourth largest city of the Camino, after Pamplona, Burgos and Logroño.
Thankfully, once we entered in the city’s historical centre, the Camino’s familiar cheery vibe returned. The day’s carnival atmosphere included a parade of towering ‘gigantes y cabezudos’ characters, a troop of town bands trumpeting tourists arrivals and, my favourite, our reunion with a long-lost pilgrim pal.
After hitting her pain threshold in Logroño, Natalia’s ‘walking’ Camino had evolved into a ‘helping’ Camino. For the last 11 days, she had lived vicariously through the adventures of others, selflessly volunteering as a hospitalero in the route’s long list of Albergues.
As the shadows from León’s heritage-rich architecture elongated around us, we searched out a mini-festival in a quirky inner-city parkland. With sangrias in hand, Natalia regaled us with the good, the bad and the ugly from the eclectic personalities she’d met on her makeshift journey. While a majority of her stories oozed with optimism, one genuinely heartbreaking account rendered us speechless.
She explained that a young Argentinian couple, on the first day of their adventure, endured the horror of having their entire cash reserve stolen. Almost every euro they’d squirrelled away for their Camino journey was gone — just like that. I couldn’t imagine how I would have pressed on after such an ordeal. However, instead of dejectedly shelving their plans, the pair had begun slowly busking their way toward Santiago. The little money they collected went toward food rations, while generosity from strangers and accommodation at donation-only Albergues had become a staple.
Much like Natalia, their pilgrimage hadn’t gone as planned. Though, hopefully, they would also embrace their Camino as a unique experience, full of opportunities to grow their resolve and ingenuity, while remaining open to faith-restoring human kindness.
We reclined on the lawn until the shadows had swallowed up the remaining daylight and the park’s festoon lighting glittered charmingly overhead. Our rest day had come just in time; while I’d managed to avoid any lasting injuries since beginning my Camino, a disruptive twinge underneath my left patella was a cause for concern. Fortunately, my plans for Day 20 included little other than napping and fattening my concaved stomach.
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Believe it or not, there was a bump in the terrain en route to León. Nothing particularly exciting, but a sign of things to come.